Robert Charles Wilson, OWNING THE UNKNOWN

This is a book about theology, atheism and the idea of God, from the perspective of a science fiction writer. Wilson is a significant contemporary SF writer whose fiction output has slowed in recent years; I reviewed his 2015 novel The Affinities here but for some reason didn’t read his 2016 novel Last Year, and there’s been nothing since then. (See SFE for background; earlier great novels by Wilson include Spin, Darwinia, and Julian: A Christmas Story.)

Except this short nonfiction book, published last year. It’s only 146 pages long, though the volume includes two short stories as appendices filling out another 45 pages. I heard about this book almost a year in advance, when the author announced it on Facebook, and I looked forward to it in part because of the inherent fascination of its topic, but also because I wondered how it might compare to my own approach in comparing science fiction, science, and even philosophy in the essay I was just completing… I read the book shortly after it was published, but being distracted by trying to figure out what to do following the death of my friend Larry Kramer the previous month, did not get around to writing my notes up here.

Subtitled: “A Science Fiction Writer Explores Atheism, Agnosticism, and the Idea of God”. (Pitchstone Publishing, Sep. 2023, 205pp, including 47p of two short stories, 12p of notes and bibliography; no index.)

Having reread my notes on the book just now, for this book I’m going to copy them relatively complete into this post, but precede the long summary with some points I found especially interesting.

So first some key ideas and takeaways….

  • Wilson notes that metaphysics is entirely about unverifiable claims, and therefore a metaphysician can never be held to be “wrong.” Unlike virtually every other aspect of human thought, which is answerable to evidence and reality.
  • He revisits the classical arguments for the existence of God, and finds them lacking on precisely that point. E.g. the Cosmological argument, that presumes that everything has a cause. Do we know this? Or that at any point the universe actually began to exist? On both counts, no. So the argument, and all the other common arguments for the existence of God, collapse, as relying on metaphysical assertions.
  • He contrasts the intuitive “dual ontology” of early humanity with challenges to it in modern times from time, geography, astronomy, and geology. (That is, the intuitive beliefs of the ancients have mostly been proven wrong [including those in the Bible, I would say].)
  • Author has some pointed comments about the “sins of Christianity“.
  • I especially appreciate his idea of “possibility space” and how that might explain the current decadence of science fiction; perhaps there are no more truly new ideas, just the same old ones recycled against different cultural backgrounds and with more diverse characters.
  • “Does God exist?” is the wrong question. The better question is, “Is it reasonable for me, situated as I am and with the knowledge I possess, to believe that God exists?” More fundamentally: “Do I possess reliable knowledge about metaphysical reality”? The answer is an easy no.
  • His argument boils down to this: all metaphysical claims, a potentially infinite number of them, are equally unlikely, because they all are claimed without evidence. So why believe in any one of them? And this amounts to atheism.
  • And Wilson offers two definitions of science fiction. “Miracle stories of the Enlightenment.” (And I especially this like phrase — that we call less “ontologically rigorous” stories “fantasy.”) And: “the literature of human contingency.” The reality of change.
  • With final thoughts on the problem of ‘false belief,’ which has led to Jan. 6th and our current pandemic of credulity; and the nature of stories.
  • An incidental reaction was rather trivial: the back cover blurb promised more than the book delivered. The blurb concludes that whatever the author finds, it “will probably not resemble anything currently found in our most prized philosophies, our most sacred texts, or our most imaginative science fiction.” This suggests that Wilson, as a science fiction writer, might offer some suggestions of ideas that surpass the ordinary notions of human philosophy and religion, or even science fiction. But those lines are just a paraphrase of the last lines of the book. No revelations are offered. On the other hand, I didn’t read the two stories in the appendices, so maybe Wilson *did* offer something there.

The book’s last lines:

After more than fifty years of personal and professional engagement with these ideas, the atheism I have arrived at — the atheism I argue for in this book — is very much like the intuitive atheist I began with: not an arrogant dismissal of religion, but a dismissal of the arrogance that too often arises from religion; not a rejection of metaphysical thought, but a refusal to embrace a premature metaphysical gnosticism; not a narrowness of mind, but a wager that the truth about ultimate reality, should we ever learn it, will confound the expectations of our most thoughtful philosophers, our most ponderous sacred books, and all of our venerated prophets.

The book ends with the author’s own key points, which are listed here at the bottom of this full summary.


Complete Notes:

Ch1, Does God Exist? Maybe That’s the Wrong Question

Author recalls attending church, right before turning 13, because of a promised display of ultraviolet fluorescence. The presentation is the Nativity story, with cheap props, and with a key moment when the lights go off and a UV light makes everything glow. He already knew the story, and about UV. Author volunteers info that bees see in UV, and someone giggles. He leaves wondering why this believing is so important to everyone. Did *he* believe in God? Or was he an atheist?

Some concept of a divine being has been around as long as people have who could ask if it existed. Amenhotep; Akhenaten. Their believers in effect became atheist about all the prior gods. Who came back after his death. Shelley may have had them in mind when he wrote “Ozymandias.” Human history is littered with discarded gods. As Robert Ingersoll argued. 19b. Funny, and true, but helpful? Gods are born of other gods. Even those in Christianity et al. Religions has always existed, and have played roles in how communities define themselves. Today we consider these subjects in the shadow of everything from the Greeks to the Age of Enlightenment. Thus how we define God, p21. But the words in such definitions have to be used carefully. Can we step outside the traditional framework? It’s impossible for anyone on either side to become familiar with details of centuries of theological and philosophical debate. And there is no established body of metaphysical results, 22b. Essential point 23t – in other matters you can be wrong, but not in metaphysics. So where do we begin?

Author recalls that winter night as he left church. How later he read science fiction, and history, and understood how religions change, and came to call himself an atheist, or at least an agnostic… Until wondering if the question itself is part of the problem. Is there a better question we can ask?

Ch2, Fiat Lux: What We Can Learn from Classical Arguments for the Existence of God, p25

We’re all familiar with the Big Bang. Hoyle and Einstein objected to the idea, but they were wrong. The idea was endorsed by the pope. Though not the implied idea of a ‘hidden’ god. In 1964 actual evidence was discovered… the cosmic background radiation. Among the numerous philosophical for the arguments of God, the Big Bang theory is relevant to the Cosmological Argument. Author looks at it just as an example, and to see how it developed over time.

One version, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is defended by William Lane Craig, attributing it to Al-Ghazali in the 11th century. And depends on ideas of causality from Aristotle. And many places throughout history.

Lane’s version is presented p30. A syllogism. Other examples are given. Valid syllogisms can be based on unsound premises. Let’s look at the premises of Lane’s argument. First: everything must have a cause for its existence. Is it sound? It seems intuitively sound. But is it really true of everything? Or ask this: do I know whether premise 1 is sound? Obviously we can’t personally know everything.

Let’s pause and define metaphysics: reasoning about the nature of reality at all times and all places, p33.

So in this sense, is premise 1 a mutually agreed-upon observable truth? No. ‘Some’ things maybe. The argument is a metaphysical assertion to leverage a metaphysical conclusion. We’ll see this again and again.

Also for purposes of this book: agnostic will be used to characterize simple lack of knowledge. Rather than whether such knowledge is unknown or unknowable. Thus author is agnostic about premise 1; he simply doesn’t know.

How about premise 2: The universe began to exist. The words galaxy and Milky Way go way back, but weren’t really understood until Herschel and Hubble: yes the Milky Way was a galaxy, or island universe; and yes some of the nebulae were other such island universes. And Hubble discovered these island universes were moving away from one another. But the cosmological argument refers to ‘universe’. This is ambiguous. We know there are things that exist that we cannot see. And we don’t know what happened in the first moment of the Big Bang. And perhaps there are other universes. Multiverses (cf Brian Greene). Thus premise 2 has no precise meaning. What does ‘begin to exist’ mean with all these multiverse possibilities?

Thus we don’t know that premise 1 and premise 2 are true; so we can’t conclude what the argument claims. It’s just a metaphysical assertion.

Same for the other common arguments for the existence of god: they all rely on metaphysical assertions. In contrast, most indigenous religions involve gods who actively interact in the world. How did the God of Christianity become a purely metaphysical being? Are the grounds on which an atheist can deny the existence of *all* of them?

Ch3, A Natural History of Two Worlds, p41

The early works of Wells stand at the foundation of modern English-language science fiction. The cornerstone is The Time Machine, depicting 19th century geological and evolutionary science. At the end the traveler sees a remote future where the sun is swollen and ancient. A startling vision during a century that saw scientific discoveries from Darwin to the atomic bomb. Matthew Arnold reflected the loss of religious certainty. Oppenheimer’s remarks. 20th century sf writers have tried to be more optimistic. Some of them look deep into the past. Bradbury, Wells. Such depictions depend on what the anthropologists believe. Wells’ “The Grisly Folk.” And “A Story of the Stone Age.” Later more nuanced depictions emerged: Jean Auel, books by Baxter and Robinson. The latter in particular speculated upon the proto-religion of life 30,000 years ago. Actual Paleolithic sites suggest rituals surrounding death.

Scholars have speculated about the origins of religion, e.g. Pascal Boyer. Quote, p47b. about counter-intuitive descriptions… the inference of agency. 48t. Grayling quote. These explanations rely on a cognitive failure of one kind or another. [[ this is getting at my own central premise… ]] But we can see such intuitions not as irrational; but rather the perception of two worlds, and of a spirit distinct from the body. Are these reasonable intuitions? What would a woman from that era say in defense? That they’re obvious. A true thing. People at night travel in the shadow world. Where they go when they die. This is her experience. Nothing she’s been taught.

We would call these dual ontology, and the disembodied self. Considering human history, we see these are persistent and ubiquitous across cultures; they aren’t religious exactly, though they may look it; they are mistaken.

[[ so he’s making a distinction between primitive intuitions and explicit religious claims. That’s fine. ]]

Ch4, The Door in the Wall

Author summarizes story about a boy who goes through a green door in a white wall into another world. And encounters the door repeatedly through his life—until he falls through it died. It’s a story by H.G. Wells. We can see it as a model of a dual ontology. Thus it’s such a plausible fantasy. Examples are everywhere: Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts, Heinlein’s Glory Road. Bradbury’s rare device. They’re everywhere in folklore and religious as well, p56. Another example is not happy: that of The Exorcist. Again, the ideas of dual ontology and disembodied self are so plausible to people, how can we be sure they’re wrong?

Such beliefs and practices deal with four hazards: time, geography, astronomy, and geology. Human beliefs change over time. E.g. when two communities contact and mingle. New belief systems are called syncretic. It’s the details that change, not those two common ideas. The details, specific beliefs or concepts, migrate from ‘serious’ to ‘nonserious’. E.g. Thor is now a Marvel movie. The others – geography etc – are versions of evidence disconfirmation. E.g. no one takes the Adam and Eve story literally any more. Geology discredited ancient beliefs about faraway places. Home, Plutarch. Similarly stories about worlds under the earth. Poe and Verne. Astronomy discredits ideas of the world divided into earth and heavens.

Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon” literalized the Biblical story about the Tower of Babylon. They dig through the Vault to reach the other side. Water flows forth, and the climber arrives back at the earth.

The more we try to map the shadow world, the more vulnerable it is to disconfirmation. It’s gotten more and more difficult to imagine where this shadow world might be; thus the erosion of religion by science. We can deconstruct that intuition of the shadow world. What do we mean by ‘worlds’? Dark matter? No. we don’t interact with dark matter. In fact, there’s no evidence for any detectable dual ontology in our current understanding of the universe. Do we just claim that it’s ‘supernatural’? But this doesn’t explain anything.

Christian theology sometimes resorts the existence of mathematical truths and geometric shapes. But that wouldn’t explain how these noncorporeal entities interact with the real world, like God supposedly does. So then, God is all reality, all times and places. So the shadow world is fundamental reality, and ours is the shadow. By this route Christian theology becomes a system of metaphysical Gnosticism.

George MacDonald was a novelist who lectured on his religious ideas. “Where did you come from, baby dear? Out of the everywhere into the here.” About babies assembled in the shadow world and transmitted to earth. We could paraphrase him: “Where have they gone, the gods so dear? Into the Everywhere, out of the Here.”

Ch5, Twenty Gods or No God: The Sins of Christianity, p68

How in the 21st century sf is a big-money cultural industry. TV, conventions, movies. It was not always so. Compared to the majority of the 20th century. Ref a Robert Bloch story in which such an idea was a joke. By the 1970s author discovered it as a subculture. In which atheism was uncontroversial. Author never talked about it with parents. Despite religious grandparents. Some autobiographical passages here; he moved to Toronto.

Author recalls the sf subculture. Ultraconservative John W. Campbell [[ editor of Astounding aka Analog ]] and his fringe notions, 71b. Progressive writers went to Galaxy and F&SF. Wide mix of ideas, including refugees from religion. Enduring attacks on science, gay equality, and so on; not all Christians, but something seemed to connect all those grievances. How could they justify their behavior through being Christian?

Jefferson, recall, said that saying there are twenty gods, or no god, does no injury to one’s neighbor. True, at least for purely metaphysical beliefs. Problems begin when a Christian, say, insists that the earth is only a few thousand years old. There are many publications and movements insisting on things that are not supported by science, promoted in homeschooling and religious school.

What are Christians doing wrong? Not just denying evidence, but overvaluing Biblical evidence. Anyone can look at the same evidence about, say, whether donuts are past their best-before date and draw the same conclusion; metaphysical claims are beside the point. The problem is creationists think metaphysical beliefs are evidence. P75 example.

[[ This is a good take on my repeated dictum that conservatives don’t do evidence; they don’t understand that conclusions should be based on evidence, not ideology – here he would say, metaphysical beliefs. ]]

But we are perfectly free to disagree with metaphysical beliefs, as established above. So they can’t serve as evidence. Even Lemaitre understood that his Catholicism was no evidence for his Big Bang theory. Example of Scottish history of witchcraft killings. Examples.

And we still have justifications based on metaphysical beliefs from the likes of William Barr and Amy Coney Barrett, p77. Beyond them are Christian Dominionism or Christian Nationalism, 78t. You can’t argue with these people because metaphysical beliefs don’t matter; everyone can have different ones. The problem is when such people that they seek power to restrict abortion, say, or ban the teaching of biology.

Author never had adult conversations with his parents about religion. Or politics or science. As adults of the post-war generation did not. We can see reflections is these attitudes in old films: My Son John, from 1952. (It was on YouTube: here, but that account has expired.) Similarly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My Son John ends with him being revealed as a communist in training. It’s an example of thinking at the time: to stop thinking, to follow superiors blindly. An example of “febrile anti-intellectualism” of its time, 80.3. Other such influences came along, including science fiction, 80m. Things are better now, but culture is fragmented. Now we face a crusade against objective truth. Culture wars. Evangelicalism as siege mentality. The metaphysical beliefs of right-wing evangelicals and their wing of the Republican party justify nothing and excuses nothing. “By insisting that God grants them unique authority over the rest of us, they plant one foot on a cloud and the other inside a prison.”

P81. SF subculture has evolved into an ‘otaku’, a consuming interest, but not a counterculture. Most people author has met through SF have fared OK. But as for the existence of God, are both theism and atheism metaphysical beliefs? Are we at an impasse?

Ch6, Lost in Possibility Space, p83

Is it *possible* that God exists? Well, sure; let’s assume it for the sake of argument. What usually follows is the “ontological” argument for the existence of God, from the 12th century and popularized by Alvin Platinga, based of course on metaphysical assertions. So we need to be more careful about answering this question.

What do we mean when we say something is possible? Some things are theoretically possible but not in any way likely, like a war with sentient squirrels. Many situations are possible in the sense that they’re unpredictable. Examples. The concept of possibility space is useful. The set of all possible states. Examples from Stuart Kaufman. In the arts we can apply the idea aesthetically. Example science fiction – see 86b about its history. Examples of Arnold, Shelley, Tennyson. But it was Verne and Wells who opened up the space that would become science fiction. Gernsback enabled it. Examples of how early stories led to later notable works, 88b-89t. The possibility space can be quickly populated, or overpopulated. [[ this is a good take on how there aren’t any new ideas in sf anymore ]] And yet in sf changing circumstances open up new possibilities, 89b–revisit this.

How about what’s impossible? Some are ontological; others are logical (contradictions), where our intuitions can fail us. Then there is extreme unlikeliness. Then we come to possibility space. Examples.

So: is it possible that God exists? The set of metaphysical realities is also a possibility space. Christian theism is just one of them. Max Tegmark’s notion that all mathematical existence equals physical existence is another. Any of these must meet two constraints: they must be self-consistent, and they must be compatible with the face of personal experience. That leaves a great many descriptions of ultimate reality, 92b. it might be infinitely large. So the answer to the question: author doesn’t know whether it’s possible that God exists. This is not just agnosticism. Actually, it bolsters a robust personal atheism…

Ch7, Asking a Better Question, p95

Author recalls Tunbridge Wells, a town that attracted tourists during certain seasons. Thomas Bayes lived there. His family was on one side of the long-running dispute about whether the Book of Common Prayer should be used by the Church of England. Among other work, he developed his theorem about probability, belief, and evidence, p97.

[[ This is all about Bayes’ Theorem, about how beliefs should be modified based on updated evidence. ]]

As John Horgan put it: “initial belief plus new evidence = new and improved belief.” Fuller version 97b. The idea is built into our basic intuitions of what’s plausible or not. It’s not perfect, but it helps us get through the day. As long as we’re honest about what we know, and don’t know.

Author was not great student and did not go to university. His father died of lung cancer even before he finished high school; they he struck out on his own in Toronto. Got a clerical job with the Ontario government. Found the SF community. Full of smart people. Author learned not to pretend knowledge he didn’t possess. And to not uncritically adopt other people’s ethical or intellectual certainties. There were always people around him making confidential claims. SF had its share of poseurs: L. Ron Hubbard; even Heinlein, full or ex-cathedra pronouncements. Like those from Lazarus Long. Writers need to be honest about what they know.

Complete honesty isn’t possible. Theology has made many epistemological claims, e.g. by Alvin Plantinga. Knowledge is slippery. We can never be certain; at best we can reach a high degree of probability. Let’s imagine how to respond to someone making a claim about some far-away planet in the galaxy. Obviously we don’t know whether his claim is true. We can take apart his claim, 103ff.

Are there other habitable planets in our galaxy? Actually, we don’t know; probably very likely. Do some of these host intelligent life? Don’t know. Maybe, but less likely that claim 1. Does at least one such planet host a civilization like ours? Don’t know. Are those inhabitants slug-shaped? Don’t know, but give the benefit of the doubt. Is that civilization ruled by a monarchy? Don’t know, but there are many possible systems of government. Is the monarch of this planet named Trebor? Again, there are so many possible names, the likelihood of this one is very small. We conclude that the original claim is extraordinarily unlikely to be true. Even worse, that the idea came to this guy in a dream makes it even less likely.

So: we can be skeptical of such a claim without having direct knowledge of the rest of the galaxy. We have plenty of evidence about some of those claims, e.g. about the galaxy and stars in it. But we have no such Bayesian priors for claims about uncaused metaphysical beings. So “Does God exist?” is the wrong question. The better question is, “Is it reasonable for me, situated as I am and with the knowledge I possess, to believe that God exists?” More fundamentally: “Do I possess reliable knowledge about metaphysical reality”? The answer is an easy no. Therefore: It would be unreasonable for me to claim reliable knowledge about the nature of metaphysical reality. 107b. Call this general metaphysical agnosticism. From there can be get to atheism?

Asking if “God exists” isn’t a simple matter; there are many versions and the more specific we are, the less likely the certainty. Again, break it into components: 1, there is a single true and comprehensible description of metaphysical reality; 2, reality at all times and all places was created by an uncaused metaphysical being; 3, that being is omniscient, omnipresent, and maximally benevolent; 4, that being is interested in the thoughts and behavior of human beings; 5; that being is capable of sustaining life after death. And tribes of Israel and created a human entity that rose from the dead, and so on. Extraordinarily unlikely, a conclusion that is indistinguishable from atheism.

Ch8, Objections: A Dialogue, p110

Author speaks with his imaginary Christian interlocutor. Is this version of atheism actually conciliatory? Author thinks only for himself; atheism isn’t his ‘identity’; why would he bar Christians from making law? Because no one is obliged to consider your metaphysical beliefs true. Or as evidence. Argue about writing laws against homosexuality. What about the naïve atheists on the internet? They’re incredulous that Christians think it’s established truth. Their Bayesian priors is that stories about people rising from the grave are mythical.

Is testimony ruled out as a source of knowledge? Other sources of knowledge: testimony, or experience. Testimony from a physicist is different than that of a faith community, 115b. What about the testimony of people from other faiths? For millennia. Again, different testimonies. Where does it end? Maybe one of them is the correct one, but we have no way to tell which.

What about personal religious experience? Christianity is a lived experience; some people construct their lives around it. What about meaning? Music in their hearts? The yearning for the presence of God.

His imaginary interlocutor deserves an answer.

Ch9, Owning the Unknown, p120

Author describes manufacture of the 200 inch mirror that went to Caltech and then to Mount Palomar. It took from 1935 to 1947. Two more years of polishing. Dedicated in June 1948. Big ceremony. They were optimistic about what it would find. In Jan. 1949 Hubble took the first photo. Among his friends were both Aldous Huxley, who later explored psychedelic drugs, and George Adamski, who made a career faking photos of ‘flying saucers.’ The convergence of their ideas, and others, brought about a cultural mindset that inspired science fiction and the ideas it dealt with. Godlike beings became a staple of sf—Clarke, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Blish, Zelazny, 2001. Later, Morrow’s Towing Jehovah in 1994 begins with an angelic manifestation. Angels in Ted Chiang’s story. Sawyer’s Calculating God. Author has come up with a couple definitions of science fiction.

One, “miracle stories of the Enlightenment.’ Miracle stories were common in ancient times and in European literature. As the Enlightenment overtook Christianity, the appetite for such stories remained. Thus Frankenstein; Wells, et al. We call less ontologically rigorous stories ‘fantasy’.

The other, “the literature of human contingency.” About the reality of change. The world was different; it might have been different than it is now; it will be different in time. SF pushes the scale past a human lifetime, and implicates the entire universe. Wells, PKD, KSR. 128m. Some people find this addictive, others vertiginous. Monotheism finds this all a bit heretical; its history is fixed and teleological. Revealed truths. That’s why they find the scientific universe cold and unforgiving. So what does it mean to live a life apart from the consolations of revealed religion?

P129. Author recalls visiting Meteor Crater in Arizona, at age 7. Only in 1960 was it shown to be a meteor crater, not an ancient volcano. Author also learned the area was once forested. And the impact had been like a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb. It was a kind of revelation. Reflected in later stories like “Divided by Infinity.” And Spin. (descr 132t) Borders of the observable universe: past, future, very large, very small, the borders of human understanding. A source of profound pleasure.

But the threat many see in the atheistic cosmos is the human knowledge of death. We all tend to discount the future. Still, atheism does not require us to renounce religious art and narrative. Or even ‘the religious experience.’ How consoling is Christian theism? What would it mean to survive death? By no means heaven; rewards are conditional. (Even if you got to heaven, maybe your relatives didn’t.) That implies a God who is vengeful, narcissistic, and petty – far colder and horrifying than any ‘void.’

P134. T.M. Luhrmann considers the religious experience apart from whether or not the gods are real. Is it OK simply to let believers be? The problem is one of ‘false belief,’ a toxic credulity that led to the January 2021 assault of the capitol. Arising from a systematic denial of obvious truth, flowing not only from religious but also American history. From slavery to smoking and climate change to evolution. Shielding oneself from such challenges to belief leads to crazier and crazier conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers to lizard creatures running the government, 136b. A pandemic of credulity. Enough to shake the foundations of democracy.

This problem can’t be casually dismissed. We mustn’t treat admission of ignorance as a confession of weakness. Science has *not* answered all the important questions.

A second lesson concerns the nature of stories. How hunter-gatherers tell stories at night. Stories perhaps more important than day talk. Stories entail the human capacity for enchantment. Stories can enlarge men’s sympathies (George Eliot). Fiction makes the world a better place. Yet stories are relatively recent inventions; the problem of false belief is far older. Addressing false beliefs doesn’t remove enchantment from the world: it makes meaningful progress possible… 139t.

Author has one more answer for his Christian interlocutor. His atheism derives from an honest assessment of his own state of knowledge. It subtracts nothing from what exists. We are still surrounded by wonder.

Recalls that December night with UV light. The pastor *wanted* to close his accounts with reality. What *is* true is miracle enough.

Then what? How do we speak about the ultimate nature of reality? One way is academic philosophy, which helps us frame our questions. Then there is art. Fiction, visual arts. Indirection and metaphor. Quote Sandburg. We remain in a world with so much unknown. Yet we know much more than our Paleolithic ancestors. We see further than them, while still seeing only a fraction of a vast universe. And we should learn to refrain from populating that universe with “our own latter-day gods.” Author doesn’t dismiss religion, but dismisses the arrogance of religion. “not a narrowness of mind, but a wager that the truth about ultimate reality, should we ever learn it, will confound the expectation of our most thoughtful philosophers, our most ponderous sacred books, and all of our venerated prophets.”

Ch10, The Bottom Line

The author’s summary of key points:

  1. Religious belief can be divided into metaphysical and non-metaphysical claims.
  2. The existence of God is a metaphysical claim.
  3. Metaphysical claims are inherently unsettled.
  4. Metaphysical beliefs are not evidence.
  5. Metaphysical agnosticism describes my state of knowledge – and perhaps yours.
  6. Potential descriptions of metaphysical reality occupy a vast possibility space.
  7. Metaphysical agnosticism means assigning equal likelihood to all descriptions of ultimate reality.
  8. Assigning a vanishingly small epistemic probability to any given metaphysical model is equivalent to atheism.


Lagniappe: after early drafts of this year’s Locus Recommended Reading list did not include this book, in its nonfiction category, I pushed to have it included. And now it’s among the top 10 finalists in its category.

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